Blogger is an atypical Catholic advocate

November 17, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

He is 23, shaggy, stubbly-chinned and sleep-deprived, and on this morning he is sucking down black coffee, inhaling cigarettes under a sign that says "No Smoking" and quoting everyone from Francis Patrick Kenrick, a 19th-century archbishop of Baltimore, to his own Italian grandmother.

And I'm thinking: Maybe there is hope for the Catholic Church after all.

Sometimes it's easy to fear there isn't, such as this week when Baltimore hosted the annual meeting of the church's bishops and their proclamations seemed so out of time that they should have been issued by puffs of smoke rather than press conference: Married people shouldn't use birth control, gays can have but not act on their "disordered" inclinations.

But in the midst of all this out-of-steppedness was Rocco Palmo, blogging away on what he heard on the escalators at the Marriott where the bishops were meeting, or what someone has just called in from Rome. With its mixture of news and gossip, blind items and random observations about the church hierarchy, Palmo's blog, Whispers in the Loggia, has become required reading among both those who think he is shining a modern light on a hopelessly medieval institution and those who think he is Satan's own emissary to the Internet.

"God is love," he says cheerfully and - here's the surprising part - without irony.

Many people don't quite know what to make of him - his blog is buzzed about, both admired and slammed and, on at least one link that's since disappeared, parodied. I think he's found a valuable middle ground, somewhere between the tradition-bound institution as represented by the Vatican and the bishops who met in Baltimore this week, and the protesters - representing gays, victims of priest sex abuse and those advocating the ordination of women - outside the meeting rooms, demanding change.

On first glance, his blog seems to be the usual snarky Internet fare - he calls Pope Benedict XVI "B16" or "the Boss," and headlines a picture of the parade of miter-topped bishops into the newly renovated Basilica "The Gang's All Here"). And yet such cheekiness masks a deep knowledge and passion about Catholicism - and a sincere devotion to it.

"I just had to have a way," he says of starting his blog almost two years ago, "to get all this stuff out of my head."

Supported by donations from readers and money from writing jobs, such as with The Tablet, a London-based Catholic journal, the blog is up to more than 1.5 million hits in its short life.

Coming down to Baltimore - from his home in South Philadelphia where he lives with his parents - has been like going to Disney World for him, it's been that much fun. He was agog at the beauty of the renovated Basilica, he found the "doctrinal hairsplitting" of this week's meeting pretty comical and he barely slept in recent days as he hung out late into the night with bishops, priests and sources and then awoke early in the morning to update his blog with any news from Rome.

"I get leaked documents," he tells me during a break at a downtown coffee shop. "My sources know I will cover their tracks."

His biggest scoop was posting a letter last month that had been circulating among priests in New York, urging a vote of no-confidence in their cardinal, Edward Egan. It became a brouhaha when the mainstream media picked it up and Egan responded publicly - rare in so closed an institution. All of which made for some interesting evasions on Palmo's part during the bishops' meeting in. "Every where I went, [Egan] was five feet away," Palmo says with a laugh. "I had to keep hiding behind pillars."

He does have his friends in high places, starting with his first cardinal pal, Anthony Bevilacqua, now retired. Palmo was a precocious 8-year-old when he met and ultimately was mentored by Bevilacqua. Everyone expected Palmo to become a priest, but then he met "a wonderful girl" in college, at University of Pennsylvania. "Well, that's it," he says with a laugh.

The girl isn't around any more, but his interest in Catholicism remained, through his graduation with a degree in political science and his "dead-end" job in PR.

"I just fell in love with it," he says of church culture. "And there was this backbeat going on."

The blog is his way of reconciling a secretive, centuries-old institution with today's 24-hour news cycle and the expectation of access to information.

It hasn't been easy, personally or professionally. He describes the sex abuse scandal that has rocked and polarized the church as "gut-wrenching." His parents wonder when their Ivy League-educated boy will get a "real" job, and he himself wonders how he'll ever meet someone to marry when all he does is hang out with celibates.

Those are his own mysteries of the faith.

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